What Are the Health Effects of Disclosure?
Joshua M. Smyth
North Dakota State University
James W. Pennebaker
University of Texas
Across history and cultures, people seek to disclose their personal experiences. Confession constitutes an important aspect of healing rituals in a variety of cultures. Indeed, self- disclosure is integral to the majority of psychotherapeutic orientations. Cross-cultural studies indicate that people everywhere are inclined to share their emotions with others and even the darkest secrets-once told to one person in confidencespread quickly to others (Rime, 1995). Such social sharing is thought to be part of the process by which people avoid the negative consequences of stressful life events. Metaphorical language for disclosure suggests that emotions are harbored in the body until disclosed. Individuals “get things off their chest” or “get it out of their system” when disclosing. They “blow off steam.” Others may worry if friends are “bottling up” their emotions.
There is abundant evidence, however, that individuals do not always disclose their emotions surrounding a major life event to those around them. Although people may have an intense desire to express or discuss negative events, social constraints may force them not to do so (Lepore, Silver, Wortman, & Wayment, 1996; Pennebaker (8; Harber, 1993). Some negative life events, such as rape or abuse, may have a social stigma attached to them. Some people may not have access to sympathetic or supportive listeners. Others may have access to a support network, but receive support that is perceived as inappropriate or insensitive. For instance, a support provider may not know how to respond to a traumatized individual and either minimize the event or resort to glib responses (e.g., “it could be worse”; Wortman & Silver, 1989). To avoid hearing such unhelpful and painful responses, many individuals will choose not to disclose the trauma. Similarly, revealing struggles tends to elicit more rejection from others than acting as if you are coping well. Finally, some individuals may be abandoned by their social network during times of crisis. This is especially true in cases of “irrevocable” stressors, such as death or terminal illness, where support providers feel especially helpless (Lehman, Wortman, & Williams, 1987).
Talk therapy (including psychoanalysis, behavioral, and cognitive therapies) provides individuals a safe environment to disclose, and has been shown to reduce distress and to promote physical and mental well-being (Mumford, Schlesinger, & Glass, 1983; Smith, Glass, & Miller, 1980). A process common to most therapies is the labeling of the problem and a discussion of its causes and consequences. Further, participating in therapy presupposes that the individual acknowledges the existence of a problem and openly discusses it with another. Emotional writing also provides individuals with the chance to disclose without fear of negative social consequences. As is discussed in this chapter, the mere act of disclosure is a powerful therapeutic agent that may account for a substantial portion of the healing process.
It is important to briefly highlight the differences between emotional expression and emotional disclosure. Emotional expression refers to the natural venting of feelings, often in nonverbal ways: crying, laughter, screams of rage. Emotional disclosure, on the other hand, requires the translation of feelings into language and, thus, is a more self-reflective process.
Raw emotional expression-without self-reflection and language-may be unhealthy. A number of studies have now linked the persistent tendencies to express negative emotion